Silicon Insider: A Theory of Everything?

Care to get involved in the first great scientific debate of the new millennium? The good news is that you don't even have to know much about science to play.

You can start with the new book A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram. In case you didn't notice, it shot to No. 1 book on Amazon.com earlier this month. No bookstore best seller, that performance was the result of huge pent up demand, with many anxious readers having waited as much as five years for its publication.

Already, there's been a burst of stories about it in the New York Times and other publications. And you'll see a lot more in the weeks ahead. As it happens, I got the scoop on this story two years ago, with a long cover story in Forbes ASAP, one of those lucky breaks that comes from a unique confluence of events that a reporter gets two or three times in a career.

Wolfram, you see, isn't just an acknowledged genius in mathematics and physics, but also a successful entrepreneur. After having helped invent chaos theory, he grew frustrated with the academic life and set out to become a businessman. He developed a software program, the first to allow complex mathematics on the PC, and set out to market it under the name Mathematica.

Back then, as a hungry, out-of-work newspaperman, I helped Wolfram introduce Mathematica, which went on to become one of the most successful personal computer application programs of all time.

Mathematica also made Wolfram a rich man. But he soon grew bored with the process and, unbeknownst to the outside world, for nearly a decade he worked all night, every night, in the attic office of his executive home, puzzling out a new mathematical theory with awesome implications.

Wolfram’s Theory — Greatness or Delusion?

Wolfram seemed like one more great mind lost from research into the more lucrative world of commerce. Except for a few scientist friends, no one knew about his secret, other life … except for one man — the editor whom Wolfram approached to publish his magnum opus once it was completed.

That man happened to be an old neighbor of mine; it was he who'd brought me into Mathematica project. Every couple of years he'd whisper to me that Wolfram was "onto something big."

So, when I took over as editor of Forbes ASAP magazine, I set it as one my goals to get to Wolfram and tell his story. It took two years of wheedling, negotiating, begging, threatening and every other trick I knew. And then, unexpectedly, Wolfram agreed.

I arrived a Wolfram's well-lit house at 11 p.m. He was friendlier and more mysterious than the difficult young man I'd known a decade before. The grungy clothes of the arrogant academic had been replaced by the wool slacks and dress shirt of a middle-aged CEO. We embarked on an intense interview that lasted until four o'clock in the morning.

As I stumbled through the dark back to the car, I realized I had either just seen the greatest scientific discovery since Relativity … or the delusions of megalomaniac.

To Understand Cellular Automata, Think Tiles

Now the rest of the world can reach its own conclusions. No doubt thousands of scientists and mathematicians all over the world are poring over A New Kind of Science right now, shaking their heads in awe at Wolfram's presumption, trying to poke holes in his theory.

What makes Wolfram's project so jaw-dropping is that he doesn't just claim to have come up with a revolutionary new theory, he doesn't just claim to have discovered a new science; he doesn't even just claim (as the book's title claims) to have come up a new kind of science.

No, Wolfram claims to have done all of these things in support of a discovery that will explain the whole universe. That's guts, folks.

Is Wolfram right? Beats me. But his new theory is stunningly simple. It begins with something called cellular automata. Think tiles. Let's say you've got tons of little black and white square tiles and you want to set them down into a pattern.

So you make a rule, something cool and complicated so you won't be bored, say: Put down a white tile if the one you put down just before it was black, and its two neighbors are all black or all white or if the last one was white and the two neighbors are black and white respectively; otherwise make it black.

So you put down a few million of these tiles and for a while you get a predictable, regular pattern. Then, out of the blue, weird little anomalies appear, then more and more. Pretty soon all sorts of crazy patterns start to emerge and none of them ever repeats itself. This is what happened to Wolfram when he began fooling around with cellular automata on a computer.

Chaos Into Structure

Cellular automata have been around for centuries, mostly in the form of tile mosaics, and have become of great interest to mathematicians in the last 50 years.

But nobody had ever systematically taken the 256 different possible rules for two color (i.e. black and white) cells operating under the simplest of operations, and then run those combinations out to millions of steps.

In most cases, what Wolfram saw was simple repeating patterns, like a chessboard. But in a handful of rules, notably the rule described above, called Rule 110, the pattern grew ever more chaotic and complex. Several million steps out, Wolfram began to see forms that resembled the patterns in snowflakes and seashells.

It struck him that what he might be seeing was a way to construct the entire universe, including biological organisms, using only handful of pieces and some simple rules, reiterated trillions and trillions of times.

He spent the next eight years spinning out the implications of this idea in physics, fluid dynamics, evolutionary biology and mathematics itself. For a more complete explanation of what Wolfram did, visit his Web site (www.wolfram.com).

Can It Explain Life?

One person who's already taken up Wolfram's challenge is Ray Kurzweil, himself a brilliant scientist and inventor. Kurzweil became something of a celebrity back in 1999 with the publication of his Age of Spiritual Machines, which argued that it would soon be possible to map our brains into computers, thus gaining immortality.

Kurzweil has already published his first challenge to Wolfram (www.KurzweilAI.net/articles/art0464.html?Printable=1). In his review, Kurzweil is willing to admit that Wolfram is onto something. Perhaps he may even have found the fundamental rules of physics (no little thing in itself, one might add).

But Kurzweil also finds Wolfram's model, even Rule 110, insufficiently complex to have produced living organisms. That, he argues, requires much more than just automata, but also some form of evolution, not just of the organisms themselves, but also the rules that govern them.

Is Kurzweil right? Once again, beats me. But it is certainly a challenge from a direction — Wolfram's model isn't interesting enough — that I never expected.

What I do know is that this is a unique opportunity to be at the birth (or evisceration) of a brand new science, to understand what it's about, to join in the debate, and perhaps, if you are lucky, make your own contribution.

Wolfram says that the various permutations of rules and cells is so lengthy that it may take decades to puzzle them all out — and just about everybody can do their part. There hasn't been an opportunity like this for us amateurs since Darwin, Faraday and Mendel in the 19th century. Now's your chance.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.

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